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Calling all Visionaries: Mindfulness and Democracy Part I

Like many of you, after this election I find myself experiencing a wide range of emotions—from sorrow, to deep dread, to plain fear, to perhaps, most surprisingly--even to myself-- a little inspired. You might be wondering why, and you must know this. In my life, I’ve been accused of being many things—just to name a few--an idealist, a Pollyanna, and worse, flippant. Maybe this is the price paid for being an optimist—it seems to offend people’s sense of outrage. So, I finally came up with a more favorable term for myself--visionary. Oh wow! I can hear the angels up in heaven singing and Gabriel blowing his horn--Du--da--doooo! But really, when people accuse me of being an idealist, I just gently suggest what they might really mean is that I'm “visionary” and tell them not to feel bad--a lot of people get it confused. If nothing else, it makes them stop for a minute and ponder. Not only does "visionary" sound better, I also think it’s more accurate. However, you might be interested to know that I’ve discovered visionaries often get a bad rap too—for many this term generates images of airy fairy people, ungrounded and impractical, somehow missing any meaningful connection to reality.

In fact, I’ve found that visionaries are even more commonly misunderstood than idealists. Although, to the contrary, I’ve also discovered that visionaries actually offer the best of both worlds—they are practical idealists—so to speak. They inhabit the present for the good of the future. As it turns out, visionaries are actually extremely practical people in that they think about and plan for the future, like squirrels that store away acorns for the winter. But, because they have traditionally used what have largely become untrusted methods, seen by many as inconsequential in the modern world—they are sometimes perceived as simple or naïve. I assure you, being a visionary myself, this is just not the case; it seems the tools of the visionary--imagination and wisdom--are needed more than ever in our world right now. It works like this: the imagination can free a visionary from the confinement of a present situation, allowing him or her to live in the possibility of the future, while still being able to apply their knowledge advantageously in the present. I KNOW!—genius, right?

Regardless of the genius and the usefulness of his or her tools, throughout history visionaries have been doubted, questioned and reduced to sad, idealistic heroes consumed with the unattainable dream of freedom, a preoccupation reserved only for the educated, upper class. One example of this is the concept of “Imagination” which was the cornerstone of the Romantic poets. They were described as a privileged, bourgeois class that had the luxury of reflecting on the nature of the imagination during long, languid afternoons, away from the hard realities of the working class. The working class, of course, people argued weren’t able to simply “imagine” themselves out of harsh or unfavorable working conditions. And this criticism makes sense to some degree when you take this point literally. But I just think of Cesar Chavez, who was able to capture the will and imagination of the exploited farm workers, creating a national movement to fight for and protect the rights of historically disenfranchised people. The power to "imagine" a better future for themselves, was central to taking action. In my studies of literature, one description defined romantic poetry as expressing “a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life.” It’s amazing how their venture was trivialized and framed as nervousness and longing for the unbounded. So what gives? Sounds a little like an attempt to describe being present to each moment instead of conceptualizing our experience--the "goal" of mindfulness--if it had one. The concept of the imagination and actually experiencing imagination are two different things—something the intellect used in critical analysis doesn’t seem to have the ability to distinguish very well. Just as mindfulness is not about the process or production of a specific end, but the process itself.

I don’t believe the Romantic poets were ever suggesting the nervous flights of fancy that literary criticism have reduced them to, but were writing to describe the very nature of man’s awareness to preserve it, to bear witness to it, to illume it. The Romantic Movement was also a response to the dehumanizing forces of industrialization, the growing disconnect from nature, and in turn, the disconnect with self that would become the normalized way of life in modern society that we are still experiencing today. I believe the Romantic poets were paying homage to the genius within us all—the creative, cognitive processes of "being" itself, that we all experience and possess. It's our birthright. If we allow ourselves the freedom to inhabit our own awareness, we can clean the mirror of consciousness--clearing the way for ourselves to respond to life outside of preconception, but from the present moment. This act is revolutionary because it has the potential improve the lives of others and ourselves. That's humanism at it's best.

Einstein, a branded genius himself, famously stated: “A problem can’t be solved at the same level of consciousness that created it.” Eventually, Einstein would even come to say that imagination was more important than knowledge. If you will indulge me and follow this precept a little further, perhaps imagination is the gateway to knowledge or knowing, and these two functions of mind are inextricably tied together. In this way, I believe that mindfulness is a way of being in the world that can play a part in accessing the “new” level of consciousness needed to imagine new solutions to the problems our nation is facing right now. God knows, the ones we have aren't working too well. After this brutal presidential election, the cracks in our political process are more visible than ever. And, by the way, when I say “new” consciousness, it sounds misleading—because it isn’t actually new at all—but more accurately, forgotten, abandoned in the din and constant distraction of the outside world and its news cycle.

Just like the Romantic poets before us that were produced out of a time of revolution and political unrest, they pointed us "inward," while the "powers that be," kept pointing us "outward." Many claimed that any political juice the Romantic Movement had gained by constructing the power of the individual "I" was lost, dwindling away and usurped into a purely superficial and aesthetic response that did nothing to elevate the common man it proposed to uplift. It was all show, and the underlying issues were left unaddressed. We saw a similar reaction in the 60’s when the momentum of Civil Rights Movement slowly faded away, eventually appropriated by commercialism that was reduced to selling peace signs on clothing and knick-knacks. However, we know that this movement was forcibly and intentionally dismantled with the murders of its many central leaders that fought for equality and human rights for all people. The very real repercussions felt today, with several members of the Black Panthers still incarcerated across this country. If this is the case, then ironically, this movement must have be seen as a real threat--with their collaborative actions not seen as trivial at all!

But before I am accused of spreading reductionist history here, as a literature and mindfulness teacher, I bring these factors up because they are connected by theme—people "imagining" a better future for themselves—a place where the rights of all people matter—not just the monarch or the 1%. The idea that all men were created equal with inalienable rights, was humanism in action as well as a product of the political and socio-economic environment of the times. But my friends, I am also glad to say it was, at it's base, a production of the imagination, the visionary's essential tool. Some have rightfully argued that our collective imagination has largely been a "white" visionary tool--but as many are beginning to comprehend, the imagination is not the possession of one particular race or class--it is a human faculty.

For me, the practice of mindfulness is the most expedient and effective way to access my visionary powers. It is the vision that grows out of my father before me, a descendant of the Californios who were cheated out of their land when this country was coming into power. And of course, the Californios had taken the land from the Native Americans--and so it goes. Being with the injustices of the past, is my only hope of healing the future. My practice allows for self-connection--the awe of the life force in which the Romantics, I believe, were referring to in their poems. From which all life comes, I do not know--hence the beauty and mystery of this existence. This force is bigger than my little concepts and moves through me when I get out of the way. This force is wiser, and more ancient than my limited life span on this planet. It is not mine, but shared and borrowed by all living creatures. As my practice grows, I have given into the imaginative process and wisdom to trust it. And it is here, waiting patiently for all of us to look, understand, and accept our own nature as visionaries, with the capacity to envision, here in the present, a sustainable way forward to our future. And this is why, my fellow geniuses, I'm feeling inspired. Get to work!

Part II coming soon!

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